Carbon storage on a gigantic scale: Research expedition to clarify role of Russian peatlands

14.07.2010

Two expeditions to inhospitable regions - the Russian Komi Republic and the Siberian Lena delta - aim at clarifying how peatlands react to climate change. Starting on 15 July 2010, Professor Lars Kutzbach from the KlimaCampus of the University of Hamburg and his team will be joining other German and Russian colleagues to investigate the complex interactions between hydrological processes and the carbon cycle in nordic wetlands. It is feared that global warming will cause them to emit more carbon in the form of greenhouse gases. The ongoing analyses will provide important basic data for the assessment of risks and for the understanding of greenhouse gas cycles. In present climate models, the factor "peatlands" has not yet been taken into consideration, in spite of its great magnitude.

Kutzbach´s approach is new: He analyzes not only the carbon cycle but also the hydrological cycle in peatlands. Up to now both factors were usually considered separately. But carbon transports occur not only in the vertical between the earth´s surface and the atmosphere, but also horizontally in dissolved form via the terrestrial fluxes of water. Kutzbach explains that the hydrological and meteorological data, coupled with soil and water analyses, help to pinpoint so-called carbon leaks in peatlands. Investigating the different mechanisms involved helps to determine under what conditions greenhouse gases are released from peatlands. The results help to close an important gap in climate models and permit assessments with regard to the degree to which global warming could be accelerated by massive releases of greenhouse gases from peatlands.

Peatlands are gigantic carbon reservoiors: Worldwide, they contain at least 550 gigatons of carbon, although they only cover three per cent of the land area. For comparison: the entire global vegetation accounts for only 600 gigatons of carbon and humans emit around eight gigatons per year by burning fossil fuels. If global temperatures rise, the carbon which has been fixed on a long-term basis up to now could become more "active", thus releasing more carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Considered over a period of 100 years, methane would have a "global warming potential" 25 times that of CO2.

Field research in freezing cold and perpetual night


The first area to be investigated by Kutzbach and his team is in the Russian Komi Republic west of the Ural Mountains. In that region 15 per cent of the land area is wetlands. The two month field campaign is the "kick-off" of a partnership with colleagues from the University of Greifswald and the  Komi Science Center.

At the same time, researchers from the KlimaCampus will be setting off for the northern Siberian permafrost areas. A melting of these usually frozen peats could also release huge amounts of carbon as greenhouse gases. They will be working in the Lena delta over a period of five months - well into the Arctic winter - together with partners from the Potsdam ResearchUnit and the Permafrost Institute of Yakutsk.

PhD student Peter Schreiber of the KlimaCampus is one of the four "extreme researchers" who will have to acclimatize to temperatures between -20 and -45 degrees Celsius and carry out field research with a flashlight during constant night. He is looking forward to collection of first-time, extremely valuable data on trace gases up to the point at which the permafrost is completely frozen. Of particular interest are processes during the transition between summer and Arctic winter, which have hardly been investigated up to now. During the deep polar winter, the instruments will be left on their own and then picked up again in springtime, before the thawing process begins. In this way, an annual profile will be gained for the first time.

For questions:
Stephanie Janssen
KlimaCampus, University of Hamburg
Outreach
Tel.: 040-428 38-75 96
E-Mail: stephanie.janssendummy@zmawdummy2.de
www.klimacampus.de

Prof. Dr. Lars Kutzbach
KlimaCampus , University of Hamburg
Contact via Press Office


Pictures as downloads:

The research team in Komi 2010 (from left to right):
Christian Wille, KlimaCampus, University of Hamburg;  Dr. Benjamin Runkle, KlimaCampus, University of Hamburg; Stephanie Langer, University of Hamburg; Mikhail Miglovec, Komi Science Centre, Syktyvkar, Komi Republic, Russia; Armine Avagayan, KlimaCampus, University of Hamburg; Oleg Michaylov, Komi Science Centre, Syktyvkar, Komi Republic, Russia; Jun.-Prof. Dr. Lars Kutzbach, KlimaCampus, University of Hamburg
Photo: KlimaCampus / University of Hamburg

Lena delta, greenhouse gas measurement on Samoylov
The eddy-covariance tower is a set of instruments to measure vertical (up and down) movements of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and temperature between the land surface and the atmosphere, and provide high quality, high frequency estimates of these important processes.
Photo: KlimaCampus / University of Hamburg

The Northern Hemisphere in August of 2006. N = North Pole, 1 = Lena delta in North Siberia, 2 = Komi Republic, 3 = Peene River Valley, 4 = Himmelmoor near Hamburg
Photo: NASA